Let me preface this article by letting you know up front that it has nothing to do with book design, I’ll leave that for another time. This information is for the self-publishing author – the “author entrepreneur” just learning the ropes.
I’ve been a freelance book designer for over eight years now, and in that time the publishing business and technology has changed quite drastically. Keeping up with those changes is part of my job, and while it’s by no means an easy task to stay current, it’s both my livelihood and passion so I immerse myself in it happily every day.
I did my first print-on-demand book back in early 2002 for who was then my first client who was a self-publishing author. Since then I’ve done hundreds, and accumulated a lot of experience and knowledge along the way. For years I’ve been passing along what I learn, giving impromptu self-publishing advice when asked, or coaching clients on how to set up themselves up as publishers, and explaining the why’s and what’s along with the ins and outs as well as the processes, but I’ve never written it down…until now.
I’ve discovered that despite the vast amount of information available on the subject, there’s still plenty to be said from perhaps a different point of view. Hopefully, you’ll find this series (I’ve roughed it out to ten parts for now) informative and useful.
Some basic concepts you should understand
To be recognized as a publishing company in the book industry, you simply need to own your ISBN. RR Bowker, the U.S. ISBN agency sells/assigns these numbers through their website. Acquiring an ISBN from someone other than RR Bowker or one of their authorized agents as listed on their web site means that the ISBN is registered in their name, not yours.
Which printing model fits your needs?
When you own your ISBN and your book possesses good content and reflects high production standards, you’re essentially on a level playing field with the thousands of small press publishers out there. The technology used to print a book has no real relationship with production values, and the quality of the interior and cover printing for offset or print-on-demand books can, just as with most anything, vary with the provider.
Choosing your printing method:
Traditional offset printing offers a substantial per unit cost benefit for large print runs numbering in the thousands. The initial set-up costs are typically higher, but that cost becomes diluted the more copies you have printed. The rule of thumb here is: The larger the print run, the lower the per unit cost. Some disadvantages are that you’ll need to manage that large inventory of books and/or hire someone to manage and distribute it. Where offset printing really shines, is when you have lots of orders or pre-orders in hand; making the economy of scale work for you without the inherent risk of investing in a large inventory you may never sell.
Print on demand
Print-on-demand is simply a digital printing technology that allows for copies of a book to be printed quickly after an order has been received. Many traditional small press publishers, academic publishers, university presses and even the larger publishing houses routinely utilize print-on-demand technology when it makes sense; such as when test marketing a new book or reprinting older, out of print titles. A print-on-demand title can be put on the market very quickly and inexpensively with no inventory overhead and low set-up costs. The trade off with print-on-demand, is the higher per unit printing costs which lower profit margins.
What’s the best option?
Unless you’re an established author with a bankable track record, it can make financial sense to use print-on-demand to launch your title as you can always switch to offset printing when the title’s sales volume warrants it – the up-front cash savings can allow you to invest more into your marketing budget. There’s really little perceptible difference in print quality that I’ve noticed, and I’ve seen many, many print-on-demand and offset printed books over the years. The up front money saved is usually better spent on quality design and marketing.
When it comes to print-on-demand books, the two major players are CreateSpace (an Amazon company) and Lightning Source Inc. (LSI is an Ingram Book company). Both offer quality products and currently represent the best in print-on-demand. CreateSpace however, has an edge that’s crucial: their integration with Amazon’s book selling apparatus. Both companies sell books via Amazon.com, but Lightning Source titles are sometimes plagued by the dreaded “out of stock” notice as they have to actually print then ship their titles to Amazon which creates delay, whereas CreateSpace fulfills demand “in house”.
Offset printing offers too many choices it seems, because I really had to agonize over whom I consider my best all-around recommendation…but I’m leaning to Thomson-Shore for a combination of factors such as quality, price, timeliness and are generally nice folks to work with.